Saturday, November 10, 2007

A couple of parables about belief

Suppose two students are taking a math test. Suppose that for a particularly difficult problem one student writes "7" as the solution and the other writes "65000*pi/sqrt(3)". It is reasonable to conclude that at least one of the two students got the problem wrong. Is it also reasonable to conclude that at least one of the students must be an idiot? No.

Does it mean they can't be friends? Of course not. (They might have difficulty collaborating on an engineering project that uses the same techniques as the math problem, but that's not the only thing in life.)

Is it reasonable to conclude that the two solutions are equally valid or equally likely? Not necessarily, but it depends on the problem (both solutions may be completely and obviously wrong).

As you've probably guessed, all of this is to explain how I can consider myself a strong atheist and at the same time caution against dismissing religious people as stupid, closed-minded, or willfully ignorant.

Why do I think my conclusion about God(s) is right?

Imagine there's a street sign near my house that I pass every day. Imagine that one day there's a bright red political sticker sticking to the middle of it that wasn't there before. I don't know how it got there, but I can make some conjectures:
1. Some person came by and put it there.
2. A race of sentient bats made the sticker and stuck it there (but no one has ever seen them because they're invisible).
3. The sticker was actually applied at the factory when the sign was made, but it just wasn't visible until recently because it was made with a new technology of perfectly invisible stickers that become visible after a fixed length of time.
4. The sign and sticker don't exist -- I'm really just a brain in a jar, and my entire reality is an illusion.

To me, choice #1 is the reasonable conclusion, and I would feel very confident that it is the correct answer -- it conforms with experiences and observations. I don't think that #2 or #3 is rational conclusion, even though I can't disprove either one. I would be willing to reconsider my rejection of #2 or #3 if someone showed me evidence that the species (resp. new technology) exists. I think Greta Christina covered the solipsism argument (#4) pretty well. I'll just add that I've never met anyone who seriously believes that the solipsistic model of the universe is correct -- it's typically just thrown out there to bolster the post-modernist argument that we can't be sure of anything, so theories contradicted by evidence are just as reasonable as theories that are consistent with evidence.

This is the reason I feel completely confident in my conclusion that God(s) -- as typically defined by humans -- do(es) not exist.

I also know that if you are religious, you probably disagree with my second parable and/or my interpretation of it. That's fine -- I'm not trying to debate you on your perception of the universe. I'm just explaining what it looks like to me.

Around the Internet, I see a lot of people trying to explain away people who disagree with them. There's a whole lot of "those guys just won't listen to reason because..." These assessments are essentially always wrong (in my humble opinion). Or to be more precise, I think they're a little bit right mixed with a whole lot of wrong. In my experience, most people have many complex reasons for believing as they do, and what's more, just because two people have reached the same conclusions it doesn't mean that their character, motivations/biases, or even their reasoning style is the same.

It is false to say that all people who believe X are closed-minded and refuse to listen to anything but what they want to hear. It is false to say that all people who believe X have failed to think critically about their beliefs. It is also a fallacy to confuse confidence in a conclusion with closed-mindedness: Just because you've analyzed a question and feel confident that your conclusion is right, that doesn't mean you wouldn't consider new evidence and new arguments.

So in short I recommend critical thinking and sincere introspection (for everyone, me included). And I'm not going to look at your answer and from there presume to tell you how you reached it.

20 comments:

Freckle Face Girl said...

Great point. Plus, there is no way that 2 people can agree on absolutely everything (not even when they are raised by the same parents). Being open minded and accepting of others can only help you develop your beliefs easier.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey FFG!!!

Exactly -- I don't expect anyone to share all of my beliefs and conclusions.

Paul said...

Great topic and great post!

According to the psychologist Howard Gardner, there are at least eight kinds of human intelligence.

Now, if each kind of intelligence is in effect a unique way of looking at the world, and if Gardner is correct, then we all have built in ways of seeing the world which may easily differ from those of our neighbors.

For instance, suppose Smith has a highly developed "emotional intelligence" while Fisselthorp has a highly developed "mathematical intelligence". The two of them would most likely talk right past each other on many subjects, including the subject of God. And if they didn't, it might only be because they put a sustained effort into understanding each other.

Yet, none of that means Smith is either superior or inferior to Fisselthorp, for comparing the two is like comparing apples and wheels.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Paul!!!

Exactly!!! That is the point I'm trying to make, and you've found yet another good analogy and metaphor to explain it!!! :D

lma said...

Good points.

I currently practice no religion (mostly thanks to my experience with the Mormon church), but I did the two years of my upper division work for my BA at a Christian university. That experience taught me that many people of faith are quite open-minded, have examined their faith and continue to do so on a regular basis, and have arrived at their faith professions through serious study and contemplation...and didn't rely just on some "burning in the bosom" feeling and warm fuzzies to develop and retain their faith.

Yeah, there were the other sort on campus as well, but they were mostly students and were few and far between. Many of the folks who taught there had attended the Seminary (a real Biblical seminary, not to be confused with that thing that Mormon high school kids attend) attached to the university, but then they had gone on to study at cool places like Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Emory...places where fuzzy thinking probably won't get anyone much of anywhere. Obviously, these are not stupid people.

I thought it was especially instructive to hear one of my Biblical studies professors, who was also an ordained minister, describing his Seminary experience to a member of the class who was interested in attending the Seminary after he (or she, I can't remember at the moment) finished his/her four-year degree. He emphasized that the Seminary wasn't a place of religious indoctrination but a place to really examine one's faith. As he put it, "If you don't have at least one serious crisis of faith during your Seminary study, you aren't doing it right."

This is not the sentiment of an institution that wants people to shut down their minds and repeat rote testimonies of "knowledge" that is really just blind faith.

So, while I don't practice a religion and have my suspicions about the reality (or unreality) of God, I'm not about to lump all believers together as stupid and unwilling to examine their beliefs and it makes me very uncomfortable when others assume that all believers are stupid or liars.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ima!!!

Precisely!!! I know how you feel about the assumption that all believers are stupid or liars. It isn't the case, so saying they are will motivate many people to (correctly) dismiss you as ignorant. It increases hostility and closes the door on meaningful communication.

It's the same when I see believers making dismissive generalizations about atheists one their blogs -- really atheists are a pretty diverse group. And feeling the need to diagnose what's wrong with people (that make them fail to agree with you) often comes off as insecurity about your own beliefs...

Aerin said...

Thanks chanson - very interesting points. And also - an important message for bridging understanding between different camps of beliefs.

DPC said...

Given a certain set of facts, I think that there are several theories that could be propounded and all of them be reasonable, even if those theories contradict each other. I think most conflicts come from a mistaken idea that one explanation is more reasonable than the other when looked at objectively.

To go back to your signpost analogy, it may seem more reasonable to me that the sticker-posting was the work of teenage vandals, whereas another person may think that the sticker was the result of a 'dirty tricks' brigade from an opposing political party to show how their opponents have no respect for public property. If I happen to support the opposing political party, I may be hesitant to accept the second position, without more facts. And if I get into an argument with a proponent of the second theory, pre-existing biases begin to play a role.

The biggest obstacle to any discussion about God between theists and atheists is that belief in God is usually the product of subjective experiences mixed with objective fact.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Aerin!!!

Hey DPC!!!

Regarding your further conjectures about the sticker on the signpost, I'd say teenagers is a more likely choice than the opposing party trying to be sneaky, but both hypotheses are plausible (among other possibilities), and neither is unreasonable. I wouldn't say I'm confident that one answer is right without more evidence.

I agree with you that everyone is biased and that it's impossible to be 100% objective. But that's not a reason to throw in the towel and give up on trying to analyze the evidence objectively. It also doesn't justify the postmodernist assumption that no explanation is more reasonable than any other.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that being an atheist appears to be the most logical step coming away from Mormonism. On the other hand I for some strange reason have the fear that stating I know for sure there is no God, or for that matter we should call it a Something, maybe not Mormonism's God is not there. So I remain on the fence being an agnostic, but an agnostic that cares about the truth...the step of atheism is very tempting to me (and when I am actually serious with myself I am an athiest) but I feel like Socrates when he said: "I know that I don't know." Perhaps fence sitting is an act of courage, when others are certain and you know that you don't know for sure. You are right about people in general. Just because you are an atheist doesn't make you smarter or better, and so it is with religious folks. So I wonder is there not something else besides labels for humans that makes us truely good? And what is the 'good' anyway? I am not a postmodernist because I believe there is a reality, and the truth can be known through reason and logic. However what of our emotions? What intellectual points do they merit? I really don't know. I will end my book.

-foxjones

Tatarize said...

Suppose that for a particularly difficult problem one student writes "7" as the solution and the other writes "65000*pi/sqrt(3)".

What is:

(sqrt((65000*pi/sqrt(3) - 7)^2) / 2) + ((65000*pi/sqrt(3) - 7) / 2) + 7

Equal to?

Although, I do not admonish people for trying to make their faith something they can show to their neighbors without much embarrassment, this usually whittles the faith down to pretty much "treat people nicely" and at that point you've thrown out the baby and are keeping the bathwater.

Unless you're crazy enough to believe in telepathic communication with first-century wish-granting zombie Jews who sacrificed himself to himself to clear away sins you didn't commit... you shouldn't bother with the whole religion thing.

Being open minded and developing your beliefs, is almost always simply keeping as many religious beliefs as you can without being completely absurd.

Tatarize said...

>>Perhaps fence sitting is an act of courage, when others are certain and you know that you don't know for sure.

Stephen Colbert hit the nail on the head there. Agnostic? Isn't that just an atheist without balls?

Really an atheist lacks a belief in God, you need not actively disbelieve. For example I can't actually disprove the existence of Loki... but I don't actually believe in him. Therefore, I am a weak atheist with respect to Loki.

You don't need to actively reject the idea of gods, you just need to not believe them.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Foxjones!!!

It's good to strive for intellectual honesty. If you're honestly not sure, then agnostic might be an appropriate label.

Hey Tatarize!!!

I'll agree with you that atheism is merely absence of god-belief, so Foxjones could claim the title atheist even if s/he is not sure. I don't think the whole "atheist without balls" accusation is constructive or helpful though when dealing with people who honestly aren't sure.

Also, I find the premise and beliefs of Christianity just as absurd as you do. However, since the evidence clearly demonstrates that many people who are not stupid and not insane hold Christain beliefs, I don't think it's rational to oversimplify and dismiss religion as stupidity and insanity. That's the point I'm making here.

Anonymous said...

howdy c. I. hanson...you live in France and a Mommy? Married too?

C. L. Hanson said...

Yes, that's right.

Anonymous said...

I largely agree with the philosopher Bernard Russell on this subject:

That sort of God is, I think, not one that can actually be disproved, as I think the omnipotent and benevolent creator can.[9]

In Russell's 1947 pamphlet, Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? (subtitled A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas), he ruminates on the problem of what to call himself:

As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.

On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods (or I would add any of the other gods).

In his 1953 essay, What Is An Agnostic? Russell states:

An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.
However, later in the essay, Russell says:

I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence.

Note that he didn't say "supreme" or "supernatural" intelligence, as these terms are metaphysically loaded.

(This seems to be my own position, but I would need a tape recorder to record the voice to make sure my mind didn’t make it up and if I have that evidence with the added evidence of the events taking place, I would take the position of the above, largely because the Holy Ghost is a subjective emotional experience, not a message from God).

Now if I were to believe in God maybe a Deist God...but that requires as much faith for me to be a complete Atheist, so an Agnostic I am, but an Athiest to the Mormon God and all the other gods...so does that make me a complete Atheist? Not exactly.

-foxjones

P.S. C. I. Hanson where can I find an ex-mormon woman like you to have a relationship? Or will you just leave your partner for me? jk.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Foxjones!!!

That Bertrand Russell was a smart guy, wasn't he? Thanks for the clarification on where you stand with atheism/agnosticism. Your position seems quite reasonable.

And, although I'm flattered by the offer, I'm kind of attached to my husband. ;^) But I'm sure there are plenty of fabulous exmo ladies out there, and with today's modern Internet technology, it shouldn't be too hard to find them. Or you could always hang around the liberal fringes of the Bloggernalce and try to deconvert one... ;^)

Anonymous said...

It is my goal to deconvert as many as I can as I made some mistakes converting some...lol. It's called the repentence process. Hey I don't think an affair with me is that bad. (jk)

Leah Elliott Hauge said...

Hey, C. L.! Great post, and thanks so much for your comment on my blog!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Leah!!!

Thanks, and I'm glad that I happened upon your blog by following the atheist blogroll links! Since you're a former Mormon, I hope you don't mind that I've added you to Outer Blogness, and I hope you'll join our exmo blogger community at Main Street Plaza! :D